There was once a young girl who lived in the Redlands, within the province of Markath, which is down in the south where the vast, smooth plains give way to rocky hills and even a few mountains. The girl lived in a city situated high up on the tallest mountain in the province, a city called Usanith.
At the time, there was a war. Markath was contending with their neighbor to the north, Janikath, as they had on and off for centuries. The girl’s father was killed, though she never learned how or where.
Time passed, and the girl’s mother struggled to get by. The war was over – a stalemate with no winner, as it always was – but there was hardly any joy to be found in peace.
The girl’s mother came to her one day and announced that a kind man had offered them a place to live. The girl did not understand why their house – the one her father had lived in with them – was so unsuitable now. Yet her mother refused to explain, and so they left to move in to the man’s house.
The man often had long talks with her mother – though from the girl’s point of view, he did not let her speak very much. The girl could not understand what they were talking about, but he talked a lot about a war – though it was not one that she knew about. The war with Janikath was over. Her mother had been somewhat quiet ever since the soldiers came to tell her about the girl’s father. Yet now there was something different, and the mother hardly ever spoke to the girl.
The man did, though. He would come in to her room, sometimes late at night, when she was supposed to be asleep. He would sit there for hours, and sometimes he would brush his hand through her hair. The girl would tell her mother about these visits, but her mother would only punish her for being a liar.
And so it went for years.
One day, the girl walked home from school. The rain had loosened the crumbling cobblestones, and the girl fell as one of them gave way on a steep slope. The knee in her pants leg was torn, and there was blood oozing from the cut. She held back her tears – the man always yelled at her when she cried too much – but it was difficult.
“My poor dear, are you all right?” asked a bright, feminine voice. The girl looked up. The woman who had run up to her was beautiful, with a round face, wide eyes, and milk chocolate skin. The woman was wearing eye-shadow that was an iridescent purple, like the wing of a butterfly.
“I…” she fought to speak – the flood of tears required all of her effort to dam. “I skinned my knee,” and then she began to cry, at a loss for control. The woman – this stranger she had never seen before, held her close and patted her on the back.
“There, there, girl, there, there. Let’s get you inside and clean you up.”
The woman led her into a nearby shop called Boulangerie Olanis. The girl had no idea what a boulangerie was, but the shop was filled with the smell of fresh bread and pastries. There was a man inside who looked very shocked. He was wearing a hood over his thick coat, so that his eyes were partially obscured.
“What are you doing?” asked the man, whose high-pitch voice severely undercut the intimidating quality of the hood.
The woman shook her head dismissively. “The girl needs a bandage. I’ll go fetch one. Meanwhile, give her a snickerdoodle.”
The man shrugged and went around behind the counter. The woman was wearing an apron, but the man was not. The girl often found that she noticed things others would not, like the apron. The woman worked here, and was probably named Olanis. The man did not, but had to be a friend of the woman’s.
The woman came back with a self-adhesive bandage and a bit of rubbing alcohol with a cloth. “This is going to sting a bit, but it’s good for you.” The woman dabbed some of the alcohol on the cloth and wiped the cut. It did sting, but not as much as the girl had been expecting.
“I’m Ellie, by the way. Ellie Olanis. This is my bakery. Do you like it?”
The girl nodded. It was a warm place, both in temperature and light. It was as if she had been transported away from all the dreariness of the rain swept city.
Ellie looked up at the man, who had been munching on a nut-filled brownie. She cleared her throat. The man put down the brownie. “Sorry, they’re just very tempting,” he said.
“What’s you name, dear?” asked Ellie. The girl frowned.
“My mother told me not to tell strangers my name.”
Both Ellie and the hooded man laughed. “A very sensible position. I understand better than you know.” She looked the girl up and down. “You know, I think you look like… a Tessa. So, Tessa, why were you in such a hurry to run down the road?”
“It was raining.”
“It was raining.”
“You don’t like to walk in the rain?”
“My mom doesn’t like it when my clothes get wet.”
Ellie nodded knowingly. She applied the bandage and stood up. “Well, I think you’re all patched up. You want another cookie for the road?”
“Tessa” accepted it. Ellie waved as she left the shop.
When she returned home, her mother was not there. The man said only that she was in the hospital, but he would not say why. Tessa retreated to her room and pushed the dresser up against the door. Sure enough, the man came knocking. He screamed at her foul words, and some she had never heard before. He pounded on the door, kicking and slamming, but she only braced herself against it. This went on for hours until finally, the man stopped and walked away.
She sat there, bracing herself between the dresser and the bed. The sun had gone down, but she worried that if she got up to turn on the light, he would be able to break through.
It was nearly pitch black. Tessa felt her eyelid drooping, and her head growing heavy. That was when she heard the bright voice of Ellie Olanis. “Tessa, my dear. Are you awake?”
She looked up. Ellie was standing at the foot of her bed, holding a small, delicate lightbulb in her hand. The bulb was not attached to anything Tessa could see, and yet it glowed with a soft, warm light that reminded her of the bakery. She looked around. The window was still shut, and the door had not been opened. “How did you get in here?”
“It’s a special trick that I learned from some friends of mine. Tessa, I’m afraid I have some very bad news. About your mother.”
Tessa felt as if her blood were draining away. “She…” Then panic shot through her. All she had left now was the man, the horrible, disgusting, wretched man.
Ellie looked down. Somehow, she grew more beautiful in mournful respect. “I have come to take you away from here. We need to go quickly. Is there anything here that you want to take with you?”
There was not. She had had a necklace – a tiny hourglass suspended on a chain – that her father had given to her, but her mother made her get rid of it. Absent of the necklace, Tessa suddenly came to realize that there was nothing in the house that she wanted to keep.
“All right, stay close, and don’t look at anything until we’re out of the house.”
Ellie shoved the dresser far enough to allow them to exit the room. Somehow the grown woman seemed to have a hard time moving what Tessa had done with ease. The terror she had experienced had given her immense strength. “Now keep your eyes shut. I’ll lead you out.”
As they passed the living room, Tessa stole a glance. Ellie’s friend, the man with the hood and the high-pitched voice, was standing over a body, holding a bloody knife. The carpet was soaked with crimson, and she could recognize her stepfather’s body by his shoes.
When the hooded man saw that she was looking, he put the knife down. She had never seen someone so consumed with shame. The man attempted to hide his face, but she had seen him. She wanted to tell him that she did not judge him – that he had done a good thing, but Ellie whisked her away too quickly.
When they got back to the bakery, Tessa began to hear shouts and sirens. Several blocks away, back where the horrible man’s house was, there was smoke risking into the night air.
Ellie and Tessa sat at a table in the back room of the bakery. Tessa spoke. “You didn’t kill him for me, did you?”
Ellie shook her head. “No.”
Ellie took a deep breath. “You and your mother were not the only people he was hurting. It’s… very complicated. I’m sorry that you saw what you saw.”
She did not mind, though. Tessa did not tell Ellie this that night, but after all the things the man had done, she was glad to see him dead. “You knew my name all along, didn’t you?”
Ellie nodded. “But if you’d like, I can keep calling you Tessa.”
“What is your real name?”
Ellie smiled. “All my names are real. But my friends in the House call me Lotus.”
“The House? You mean where you live?”
Ellie laughed. “No, not quite.”
When Lotus, the hooded man, and Tessa were about to leave town, she decided to look at the horrible man’s house one last time. It was a charred husk. Everything had burned down to the foundation. The only thing left of it was dust.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)